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The First, Second, and Third Samnite wars, between the early Roman Republic and the tribes of Samnium, extended over half a century, involving almost all the states of Italy, and ended in Roman domination of the Samnites. The tribes of Samnium, who held the Apenninesmarker to the southeast of Latium, were one of early Rome's most formidable rivals.

First Samnite War (343 to 341 BC)

For centuries the Sabellian highlanders of the Apennines had struggled to force their way into the plains between the hills and the Mediterranean. But Etruscansmarker and Latins had held them in check, and for the past hundred years the direction of their expansion had been not on Latium but east and south-east. They had begun to stream into Campania where they had become accustomed to a more civilized life, and in turn had become less warlike and ill-fitted to cope with their kinsmen of the hills. In the middle of the fourth century, the most powerful group of the highlanders, the confederated Samnites, were swarming down upon their civilized precursors in Campania. Farther east and south, Lucanians and Bruttians were pressing upon the Greek colonies of Magna Graecia. The Samnite warrior-herdsmen from nearby hills wished to use the grasslands of the plains for their animals — lands that the plains people had fenced. In effect the semi-civilized were hammering the over-civilized. The Greeks were appealing for help to Epirus; those on the plains — the Campanians — appealed to Romemarker and Rome came to their rescue. Roman envoys went to leaders among the hill people for discussions and were rudely treated. War between Rome and the Samnite hill people followed.

The First Samnite War was brief. It was marked by Roman victories in the field and by a mutiny on the part of the soldiery, which was suppressed by the sympathetic common sense of the distinguished dictator Marcus Valerius Corvus, who was said to have vanquished a Gallic Goliath in single combat in his youth. The war lasted two years, ending in 341 with Rome triumphant and the Samnites willing to make peace.

The war was ended by a hasty peace as the Romans deserted the Campanians, to put down a revolt by their Latin allies. The members of the Latin League had been forced into the Samnite War without their consultation, and they resented their dependence on Rome.

Despite its brevity the First Samnite War resulted in Roman acquisition of the rich land of Campania with its capital of Capuamarker. Roman historians modeled their description of the war's beginning on the Greek historian Thucydides' account of the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War between Athensmarker and Spartamarker. Nevertheless, they were probably correct in stating that the Campanians, when fighting over the town of Capua with the Samnites, allied themselves with Rome in order to utilize its might to settle the quarrel. If so, this may have been the first of many instances in which Rome went to war after being invited into an alliance by a weaker state already at war. Once invited in, Rome usually absorbed the allied state after defeating its adversary. In any event, Campania now somehow became firmly attached to Rome; it may have been granted Roman citizenship without the right to vote in Rome (civitas sine suffragio). Campania was a major addition to Rome's strength and manpower.

References

  • Article on The First Samnite War at Military History Online [25565]


Second (or Great) Samnite War (326 to 304 BC)

In 327, war broke out again between Samnite hill people and those on Campania's plain. The Samnites established a garrison in Naplesmarker — a city inhabited by Greeks. Again people of the plain sought Rome's assistance, and again Rome went to war against the Samnites.

The Romans soon confronted the Samnites in the middle of the Liris river valley, sparking the Second, or Great, Samnite War (326-304 BC), which lasted twenty years and was not a defensive venture for Rome. During the first half of the war Rome suffered serious defeats, but the second half saw Rome's recovery, reorganization, and ultimate victory.

At first the Roman armies were so successful that in 321 BC the Samnites sued for peace. But the terms offered were so stringent that they were rejected and the war went on.

In the same year (321 BC) the two consuls, leading an invading force into Samnium, were trapped in a mountain pass known as the Caudine Forks where they could neither advance nor retire, and after a desperate struggle would have been annihilated if they had not submitted to the humiliating terms imposed by the Samnite victor Gaius Pontius. The troops were disarmed and compelled to pass 'under the yoke', man by man, as a foe vanquished and disgraced. This ancient ritual was a form of subjugation by which the defeated had to bow and pass under a yoke used for oxen. (In this case it was a yoke made from Roman spears, as it was understood to be the greatest indignity to the Roman soldier to lose his spear).

Six hundred Equites had to be handed over as hostages. Meanwhile the captive consuls pledged themselves to a five-year treaty on the most favourable terms for the Samnites. Later Roman historians, however, tried to deny this humiliation by inventing stories of Rome's rejection of the peace and its revenge upon the Samnites.

The war stalled for five years. And, as Rome waited for the war to resume, it strengthened its military by increasing recruitment.

In 320 and 319, the Romans returned for revenge against the Samnites and defeated them in what the Roman historian Livy described as one of the greatest events in Roman history. In 315 BC, after the resumption of hostilities, Rome suffered a crushing defeat at Lautulae.

Until 314 BC, success seemed to flow with the Samnites. Campania was on the verge of deserting Rome. Peace was established between Rome and some Samnite towns. Then the tide turned in 311, when the Samnites were joined by Etruscanmarker cities that had decided to join a showdown against Roman power. The intervention of the Etruscans in 311 BC came about as the forty years peace reached its end.

After the first shock the Romans continuously defeated both their enemies. The war became a contest for the dominance of much of Italy. Between 311 and 304, the Romans and their allies won a series of victories against both the Etruscans and the Samnites. In 308 BC the Etruscans sued for peace which was granted on severe terms and in 304 BC the Samnites obtained peace on terms probably severe but not crushing. For assurance, the Romans demanded inspections, and peace was established between the Romans and Samnites that remained until 298.

Ancient sources state that Rome initially borrowed hoplite tactics (the use of the phalanx) from the Etruscans (used during the 6th or 5th century BC) but later adopted the manipular system of the Samnites, probably as a result of Samnite success at this time. The manipular formation resembled a checkerboard pattern, in which solid squares of soldiers were separated by empty square spaces. It was far more flexible than the solidly massed hoplite formation, allowing the army to maneuver better on rugged terrain. The system was retained throughout the republic and into the empire.

During these same years Rome organized a rudimentary navy, constructed its first military roads (construction of the Via Appia was begun in 312 BC and of the Via Valeria in 306), and increased the size of its annual military levy as seen from the increase of annually elected military tribunes from 6 to 16.

During the period 334–295 BC, Rome founded 13 colonies against the Samnites and created six new rustic tribes in annexed territory. During the last years of the war, the Romans also extended their power into northern Etruria and Umbria. Several successful campaigns forced the cities in these areas to become Rome's allies.

Third Samnite War (298 to 290 BC)

At the turn of the century, the Samnites attempted a final invasion of Roman territory, and made common cause with the Etruscanmarker and Umbrians, persuading the Gauls also to join them.

The war began again in 298 BC on the plains near Neapolis. When the Romans saw the Etruscans and Gauls in northern Italy joining the Samnites they were alarmed. The Romans had benefited from a lack of coordination among its enemies, but now Rome faced them all at once.

Some relief came with a victory over the Samnites in the south, but the crucial battle for Italy took place in 295 at Sentinum in Umbria, in Central Italy, where more troops were engaged than any previous battle in Italy. At first the Romans gave way before an attack by Gauls in chariots. Then the Romans rallied and crushed the Samnites and Gauls, the Romans benefiting from their self-discipline, the quality of their military legions, and their military leadership.

Nevertheless, the stubborn Samnites fought on until a final defeat in 291 BC made further resistance hopeless, and in the following year peace was made on more favourable terms for the Samnites than Rome would have granted any less dogged foe.

The Campanian cities, Italian or Greek, through which Rome had been involved in the Samnite wars, Capuamarker and others, were now allies of Rome, with varying degrees of independence. Roman military colonies were settled in Campania as well as on the eastern outskirts of Samnium.

After Rome's great victory at Sentinum, the war slowly wound down, coming to an end in 282. Rome emerged dominating all of the Italian peninsula except for the Greek cities in Italy's extreme south and the Pomarker valley — the Po valley still being a land occupied by Gauls.

Chronology (incomplete)

First Samnite War (344 to 341 BC)

Second (or Great) Samnite War (326 to 304 BC)



Third Samnite War (298 to 290 BC)



References

  • Livy is our primary source for the entire conflict with Samnium. Although he describes the wars and battles with enthusiasm and detail, the historicity of much of the account remains suspect.
  • Lukas Grossmann: Roms Samnitenkriege. Historische und historiographische Untersuchungen zu den Jahren 327 bis 290 v. Chr., Düsseldorf 2009.



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